A woman in her forties is coming up the beach towards her. She pulls a gray coat tight around herself to block the wind but, as she gets closer, Lauren can see a warm smile on her closed, full lips.
Lauren looks over to the torrid waves, but the woman still comes, sitting beside her on the stones. When she turns to face her, Lauren can see her eyes, as gray as oceans, the pale, translucent mirror of everything and nothing.
“You’re me,” Lauren gasps.
The woman smiles gently and Lauren can see now, her own features different, older, her eyes glimmering with illumination.
Breathing is hard. You have to concentrate on it, think about it all the time. Otherwise you might just stop.
She’s been dreaming of another time. Dad was there, still alive, and it was just the two of them at the shore, with Bailey the black dog. Mom was organizing something at her work, her sister Kate at college. It was as if Dad and her had escaped time, darting onto the beach with green and turquoise towels, the ocean radiant blue in the blustery sunshine, their shouts and laughter carried off by the wind far out to sea, to distant lands and continents, covering the world with joy and freedom, with all that it means to be alive.
“Let’s find treasure,” Dad yelled and they ran, ran across the pebbles, racing, laughing.
“Let’s skim stones,” she begged him.
“Another time,” he called as they headed after Bailey.
Lauren’s Dad died of a stroke the following month. Her mother closed into her own world, drinking heavily, until she met John a year later. They had become engaged, waiting for Lauren to go to college, doing the right thing. But she became more absent. When Lauren realized that she was having her mail sent to John’s house, she knew she was living with a ghost, a swish of a woman who was hardly there. One night she found her gone, her bed ruffled as an absurd kind of alibi.
If you focus on breathing, you have no space for anything else. There is no time to love or hate; only to react.
Bailey was given to a neighbor during one of Mom’s drunken moments. He reminded her of Dad. She didn’t want him in the house.
Lauren sometimes wonders if her mother feels the same way about her.
Of course her school friends are jealous. She can do whatever she wants, whenever. There are no rules, no limits, no curfews. Her mother’s wine cellar has no lock, and the cleaner can be bribed to keep quiet about the party debris, the stench of drugs. The neighbors complain that she’s become wild, the parties populated with people from the city, older, sharper, corrupt and criminal.
You breathe in, and then out, then stop. Everything pauses, the world stops turning for a moment, and you are plunged head-first into the inescapable torment of transience, blended with silvery streams of grace, serenity, a sense of inevitability.
The guys who had come in the truck wouldn’t leave. It’s late, only a few people left, the place trashed as usual.
Who are these guys?
“Okay, party’s over, guys,” her friend Adam says, trying to get them out.
Lauren is out of it. The guys brought a ton of drugs and she got carried away. She is in a daze, unable to grasp anything.
“You better go to bed,” Adam says, pulling her up from the armchair and leading her to the stairs.
The bedroom is pink and purple and fantasy fairyland. She collapses on the bed, glad to close her eyes.
The sound of shouts comes from downstairs, and then she hears the heavy feet on the stairs.
Then something inside you panics, screams: Take a breath! Take a breath! And you have to follow; there’s nothing you can do.
It’s her eighteenth birthday next week. She doesn’t feel mature and capable. She feels crushed. She knows now that the world is a large, unsavory place, inhabited with strange, frightening people who she doesn’t understand. She is torn between seeking out all experience—to master it, own it—and hiding away, hoping it won’t find her, trying to forget.
She needs company tonight, but no one’s there. She calls her sister, but there’s no answer, and there’s no way she’ll call her mom. Why would she do that? Mom would make everything worse, get hysterical, and then Lauren would have that to deal with her too. She calls some friends but they’re busy. It’s Sunday, the day people are at church, with their families. A surge of gloom seizes her, and she looks to the nomadic verve of the gray water for an answer.
And then she begins to dream.
“Everything will be alright,” the older woman says softly. “I know it feels like the end of the world and no one cares, but you have to be strong, press on, keep breathing.”
Lauren begins to cry. The woman puts her arms around her, covering them both with her warm gray coat. She stays with her until the morning, kissing her head and whispering into her ear, “I will always be here for you. I’ll tuck you up and keep you with my own children, nurture you like I do them.”
The ocean roars like an unspent force.
“I will be with you forever.”
Jennifer Ryan is a non-fiction book editor, working for The Economist and the BBC. Originally from London, she now lives in Washington, DC where she is a an editorial consultant and a student at Johns Hopkins. She has been published in Wild Violet Magazine and The Blue Lake Review.